Rauner signs stopgap budget deal

Illinois lawmakers approved a partial spending plan Thursday that would ensure schools stay open another year and give colleges and human service programs funding for six months, a rare bipartisan accomplishment but one that won't end the yearlong gridlock on a full budget.

The Democratic-led House and Senate overwhelmingly passed the plan, and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed it later Thursday, the last day of the fiscal year.

Democratic leaders and Rauner crafted the agreement after days of negotiations amid increased public pressure to avoid entering a second fiscal year without spending certainty. About a dozen Illinois newspapers used their front pages Wednesday to publish editorials demanding that the two sides strike a deal and stop the bickering that has led to layoffs at colleges and forced social service providers to close their doors or make cuts.

Before the 105-4 House vote, Democratic House Leader Barbara Flynn Currie acknowledged the plan doesn't solve the state's fiscal mess.

"It is meant to keep the lights on," she said.

Illinois is the only state in the country without a full budget for this year.

In all, lawmakers are agreeing to spend $25 billion in state and federal funds for the current budget year, and another $50 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. Schools will get just over $11 billion to stay open for a full year.

The agreement also provides Chicago some relief on pension payments for teachers, an idea Rauner had resisted until Democratic lawmakers agreed to lower the amount they wanted.

But while schools and cash-strapped colleges and social service providers can breathe a sigh of relief, the partial spending plan also means both parties will face high-stakes elections in November to influence budget discussions in January when a new legislative session begins and money starts to run out.

Republican House Leader Jim Durkin said it would have been "atrocious" and likely spurred a public revolt if lawmakers finished another fiscal year without a budget. He noted that even with the compromise, the ongoing budget standoff between Rauner and Democrats who control the Legislature will be an election-year issue.

"Mark my word that it will be articulated in the fall by various entities," he said.

For 18 months, Rauner has demanded business-friendly, union-weakening laws as a condition for agreeing to a spending plan that would include a tax hike. Democrats say the governor's initiatives would hurt middle-class families and have nothing to do with the budget. The partial budget won't solve that ideological divide.

While Rauner has not gotten his demands, he's not giving up and said Thursday that November's elections will determine whether his party has a greater voice to help him achieve what he wants.

"This election will largely determine that outcome," he said.

Under the plan, schools are getting over $500 million more in state aid than they did last year. There will also be a $250 million "equity" grant to help schools with low-income students. Chicago would get $100 million of that.

Part of the deal includes passing legislation to allow Chicago to raise $250 million in property taxes to help with teacher pension payments. A companion proposal will have the state cover $215 million in future pension costs beginning in June, like it does for all other Illinois school districts, but only if lawmakers pass legislation to reform the overall pension system next year.

Democrats initially wanted $400 million for Chicago Public Schools, including money to help make the city's teacher pension payments.

The emerging plan calls for a $673 million increase for human services programs, including $20 million to restore programs that Rauner suggested eliminating.

There is also $1 billion for colleges and universities — about 85 percent of what they received the last time the state approved higher-education funding.

Various state agencies, including the Department of Corrections, are getting $709 million to cover operational expenses.

Even before the partial budget agreement, a large chunk of Illinois' spending was on autopilot because of court orders requiring payments to Medicaid and state employees. Those court orders will continue, increasing the state's debt.

Rep. Jack Franks, a suburban Chicago Democrat who voted no on Thursday's funding measure, said it delays a long-term solution.

"I don't believe there's any profiles in courage today," he said. "Our unpaid bills will continue to grow. Our pension obligations will continue to grow. And our state will fall farther & farther behind in paying their bills. And our credit rating probably will be downgraded again."

Indeed, immediately after the stopgap spending plan was approved, a Wall St. agency lowered the credit ratings of five state-funded universities, including Northeastern Illinois in Chicago & Governors State in the South Suburbs. None got as much money as hoped.

Political tension flared during debate on the spending plan when Democratic members of the Black Caucus sought an extra $9 million for developing & training minority teachers. It was not part of the original, bipartisan spending deal. And, when it was blocked, Republicans applauded, provoking this.

"I understand that maybe you don't care about minority communities as much as I do. I get that. I get that. I get that," said Rep. Will Davis.

That accusation angered House Republican leader Jim Durkin, but he left it to others to respond formally.

"Ladies & Gentlemen, we're gonna have to do far better going forward, far better. And our charge is to start acting as colleagues & friends, who can debate hard. But, if we're gonna come to a deal, let's honor those deals & move forward," said Rep. Ron Sandack.